Paris-Nice Stage 4: Geraint Thomas takes race lead, Tom Jelte Slagter wins stage
Sky and Garmin-Sharp rider fight it out for stage win after getting away on final climb
Team Sky's Geraint Thomas is the new leader of Paris-Nice, after finishing second in Stage 4 of the race in Belleville this afternoon to Tom Jelte Slagter of Garmin Sharp. The pair got away from the peloton on the day's final climb and held on ahead of the chasing bunch to fight it out for the sprint.
Thomas has an overall lead of 3 seconds over second-placed John Degenkolb, with this morning's leader finishing in the chasing bunch around a quarter of a minute behind today.
"It's unbelievable," said Thomas afterwards. "I only learnt Friday before the race I was going to lead the team. Paris-Nice is one of the biggest stage race in the world behind the Tour de France and the Giro. To hold the yellow jersey is great and I'm very happy.
"I obviously received great support from the team. It's a different pressure because you don't want to let them down. I knew anyway that if I had been helping Richie [Porte] I would have played a role here anyway. But the fact that he went to Tirreno was a great opportunity for me.
"I just want to enjoy that day in yellow because John [Degenkolb] will probably take it back tomorrow with the bonus sprints.
"In the finale I just went, I didn't ask myself any questions. You always want to win a stage and I probably should have stayed in Slagter's wheel but I had done most of the work in the finale and this jersey is a great consolation.
"It's true Sky is a great team with many talents like Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Richie Porte and others like Edvald Boasson-Hagen or Ian Stannard. I guess we just push each other," he added.
Slagter, riding only his second race for Garmin-Sharp after his close-season switch from Belkin, said: "I can't believe it because this is the first race of my season after one day in Mallorca. But it was really hectic in the last few days and you can feel how good you are.
"Today was the best possibility for me. That [final] climb suits me really well but to win the stage is something I didn't expect. I knew Geraint Thomas is pretty good, he is fast and strong and a very good rider. I knew that if I wanted to beat him I had to wait for the right moment but it worked perfectly. It was the job I had to do."
Thomas had followed a move from Slagter on the Category 2 Cote de Mont-Brouilly, crested with 14.5km of 201.5km stage from Nevers remaining, with today's route earlier featuring a trio of Category 3 climbs.
With 4 kilometres remaining, Slagter and Thomas – wearing race number 1 as Team Sky’s leader in the race in place of last year’s winner, Porte, who is racing Tirreno-Adriatico – had an advantage of half a minute over the chasing bunch.
Behind them, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali attempted to attack, but his move was quickly shut down by Sky’s David Lopez, awake to the threat to Thomas, but with 2km left to ride the front pair's lead had been cut to 18 seconds.
They held on to contest the sprint, however, Slagter biding his time before making his move and Thomas unable to rein him back, but doing enough to ensure that they would be given the same time and in the process picking up the bonus seconds that put him into the yellow jersey.